by Christy Howard Parsons

ONE - The 65th version of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration was incredible in virtually every way. A record number of 4,914 entries were made prior to the show. Including championship entries, a total of 5,461 entries were made by 2,591 different horses. That represents an increase of 134 over the old record of 5,327 in 2002. Out of the total number of entries, 3,625 were actually presented in the showring, a 144-horse increase over the previous high mark in 2002.

"That number speaks to the health of the industry in general," said Celebration Chairman Pat Marsh. "When we went over the 5,000 mark in total entries a few years ago, it was a very big landmark to pass," continued Marsh. "It’s very gratifying to see the numbers continue to grow. All credit for this should go to the owners, trainers and exhibitors in the walking horse industry. It’s their hard work and dedication to the breed that makes this world championship horse show what it is."

Attendance records also set all time highs. In 2003, a total of 161,817 fans streamed through the historic gates of the Celebration Grounds. The paid-attendance record was also smashed with 242,290 tickets being sold for the ten nights of competition.

"We couldn’t be happier with the attendance numbers," Marsh happily said. "To break the actual attendance record for the entire show and set single-night records on six of the ten nights is incredible. It tells us that the product we’re presenting is what the public wants to see - beautiful and talented horses, great riders and a terrific overall atmosphere."

"Our box seats are sold out every year, but there’s normally a handful of reserved seat tickets remaining on the final night," explained Marsh. "This year they were all gone and we were selling general admission standing-room-only tickets."

"All in all, there’s an awful lot to be pleased with," said a smiling Marsh. "But that doesn’t mean we won’t be working hard every day to find ways to make the World’s Greatest Horse Show even better. We will."

TWO - That record number of standing-room-only guests didn’t care that they didn’t have a seat when the final class of Saturday night entered the ring. Bill Bobo and The Whole Nine Yards had the crowd on their feet from the moment they entered the gate. Last year’s Junior World Grand Champions, Bobo and Nine were widely accepted as this year’s favorite for the World Grand Championship. Bobo had won every world grand championship offered by the Celebration except for two and one was this elusive top prize.

The only person who probably wanted it as bad as Bill, was his wife of 33 years, Connie Bobo. Unfortunately fate stepped in and a mare stepped on Connie’s foot in the warmup ring resulting in a serious injury that sent her to the emergency room via the ambulance only two classes before the final class entered the ring. Listening to the show via the radio, Connie convinced the hospital to issue her crutches quickly and with the help of Charles McDonald of the Celebration, security whisked Connie from the hospital to the out gate where she witnessed her husband make his spotlight victory pass.

Connie later said the hospital had told her she was the “ninth” person to be taken to the hospital that night. The number nine had been a good luck charm throughout this horse’s career. The price some people will pay for superstition.

In fact, Bill wore the number nine as his back number and they elected not to show much during the 2003 season so that the WGC class would be the ninth time he would show. Maybe it was the number nine, maybe it was Bill’s father’s tie draped around his neck, maybe it was the rain shower that opened up the heavens minutes before the class entered the ring and just as quickly left, but whatever it was, it was a lucky night for Bill Bobo, Bob and Luanne Sigman and The Whole Nine Yards.

But part of the reason it was a good class, was that it was not just a one horse class, the way some had expected it to be. Jimmy McConnell and The Black Night Shade had won their preliminary class on the first Saturday night and McConnell had been pleased with his ride.

“He made about as good a show as he can make,” said McConnell. “The last three times I’ve shown him have been the best three shows he has made in his life (Celebration, Belfast, Tenn., and Corinth, Miss.). When that horse is at the top of his game, we think he can go with any of them.”

Make that four top shows. This top five-year-old owned by Tom and Judy Waite made arguably the best show of his life and he received unanimous second place honors for his efforts.

Ronnie Spears also brought Pushover’s Powerstroke back for another try. After tying second in the division A preliminary, Spears showcased Powerstroke’s motor and ability in the challenging class for owners Glen and Virgie Crutchfield.

“I think he is the total package. He is very athletically gifted,” said Spears. Together they earned the third place tie.

Fourth went to Dick Peebles and The Snowatch, a crowd favorite, who is owned by the Anthony Joseph family. The west grandstands always love a white horse and The Snowatch gave them plenty to cheer about on Saturday night.

Another white horse sorely missed during the class was Shout, the white mare who has made two prior runs at the World Grand Championship earning Reserve World Grand Champion honors in 2002. In 2003 she once again won the mare stake on Sunday night and looked to be setting up a “third times the charm” show for Saturday night. Unfortunately that was not to be, when it was announced on Friday that she would be unable to show due to injury. If she had, who’s to say what would have happened, but the west grandstand may have exploded with excitement.

“Some of the best judges in the world are sitting in those box seats and in the grandstands,” said Bill Bobo earlier in the week. “When they get behind you, then you know you are riding a pretty good horse.”

From the roar on Saturday night, there were some pretty good horses in there.

THREE - This year the top two horses in the four-year-old stake were newcomers from the 2002 junior division. The junior contenders from this year are already lining up for “powerful” competition in 2004.

Main Power was last year’s Amateur Three-Year-Old World Grand Champion and World Champion with his owner Kay Green. He also won the Open Three-Year-Old World Championship with Joe Cotten in the irons. Prior to this year’s Celebration, Bob Kilgore and his two partners Neil Holland, Jr. and Gus King, purchased the talented youngster for a reported $400,000. The excitement surrounding a sale of that magnitude made the four-year-old division a must see event.

On Sunday night, Main Power was clearly winning his split of the preliminary class. Unfortunately on the second way of the ring at the canter, the horse ran into the railing and unseated Joe Cotten, who was injured slightly, but insisted on remounting and finishing the class. The horse was tied by three of the five judges to win the class. Judge Laura Brandon, who was facing the horse when Cotten was thrown, tied the team fourth.

NHSC rules provided that a fall of horse and/or exhibitor did not require the entry to be excused as long as the horse was not unruly, and therefore, it was correct, for the entry to remain and be judged.

Obviously Cotten and Main Power spent some time practicing that canter before Friday night, because when it came time for the junior world grand championship, Main Power was flawless and his canter was slow, easy and controlled. He was rewarded with the tricolor ribbon and roses, and the appreciation of the crowd.

Another crowd favorite was Gold Picture and hometown favorite Bill Bobo who earned the reserve championship. Outlaw Josey Wales and Billy Gray were also well supported by the crowd after winning the other split of the preliminary class earlier in the week and rounding out the top three in the championship.

FOUR - The three-year-old open division has been one of the toughest divisions of the year. All year, Ted Williams and Joe Cotten have been the horse to beat. A Strong Dollar and Link Webb, Titleist and Steve Dunn, NYPD and Tim Gray, Ritz’s Diamond Joe and Jamie Bradshaw, Dragonfly and Jimmy McConnell and on and on prove that this is one of the deepest classes of horses in years. A Strong Dollar, Ted Williams and NYPD each won one of the three preliminary classes on that first Friday night.

Unfortunately, A Strong Dollar was injured and did not show back in the championship. The Titleist won the TWHBEA Futurity but also elected not to show back.

Still going into the championship, the competition promised to be deep and Ted Williams was clearly the favorite. But on any given night, any given horse can make a bad show, and this division does not leave any room for mistakes.

Tim Gray waited in the warmup ring for one of the final three entries in the class to enter the ring. He waited and he waited. With only a few seconds left, he decided to go for it, and he hit the ring in full stride at his horse’s peak. He continued down the length of the rail in front of the west grandstand and the crowd picked up on him at that first pass. He had them from then on.

With each pass, NYPD got stronger and better and the crowd just got that much louder. Tim’s wife Patti could not bring herself to watch the class.

“It even scared the horse a few times,” Tim said later. “It was a blessed moment.”

It was wonderful to see Tim Gray shine in his spotlight ride. Gus King and Neil Holland, Jr. were proud to own another 2003 World Grand Champion.

FIVE - Perhaps the best reason to celebrate the two-year-old division is the sheer number of horses. For the second time in history, the two-year-old stud qualifier had to be split into four divisions. There were more splits at the 2003 Celebration, than there have ever been.

The Ivy League and Jimmy McConnell, Missed The Boat and Dude Crowder, Expeditor and Knox Blackburn, and Image of Ritz and Larry Edwards each claimed one of the four preliminary titles. And when they all returned it was anyone’s ball game, but Edwards was confident.

“He is like riding an aged horse,” Edwards said after the qualifier. “He is one of the smartest two-year-olds I have fooled with. He just keeps getting better all the time. He has more sense than anything I have ever seen. You can train an intelligent horse.”

They both looked pretty smart under that spotlight making their World Grand Championship victory pass. Knox Blackburn looked pretty smart himself, earning a reserve world grand championship with Expeditor and selling the outstanding youngster to Bill Clayton at the show.

SIX - If you were impressed by the two-year-olds, then you should take note of the classic horses. One of the hallmarks of our breed is the ability of show horses to show again and again, even after they have reached the “classic” age of 15. King of the classic horses is Gen’s Fire & Ice who claimed his 38th Celebration title at this year’s show. Six of those have been with Stephanie Gordon and an amazing 24 have been with Susan Gordon. Trainers Russ Thompson, former trainer Gary Edwards and former owner Kay Barkley complete the ribbon count. Other classic horses which made 2003 Celebration victory passes include Jubilee’s Star Wars, Pride’s Flashy Girl and Silver Design, just to name a few.

Not yet a classic horse, Coin Maker also has an incredible show record with 24 Celebration blues. In fact, the last 16 times, Coin Maker has entered the Celebration oval, he has left with the top prize - that’s 16 consecutive times. Trainer Knox Blackburn has prepared Coin Maker for each of those victory passes, the most recent of which have been made by owner Suzanne Littell.

SEVEN - Some of the best classic horses show up in the 11 & Under competition. Eb’s Cloud Nine has been winning Celebration blues for years. This year he took Alex Blackburn to one of the 11 & Under preliminary blues. Tyler Baucom and Coin’s Clown also won a preliminary 11 & Under class. Amazingly, not so many years ago, Stacy McConnell Blackburn (Alex’s mother) and Chad Baucom (Tyler’s dad) also won preliminary 11 & Under classes in the same year. Rachel Hyneman and Flashy Cash won the third preliminary split this year.

Tyler came back to win the 11 & Under World Grand Championship amid tough competition. Amy Ann McCormick (Mike McCormick’s daughter) was the reserve world grand champion. Maisie McSwain, last year’s 11 & Under World Grand Champion, rode her new Gen’s Burning Rage to the third place honors. And Alex Blackburn had an excellent ride for a fourth place finish aboard Eb’s Cloud Nine.

EIGHT - Many of these youngsters made their first Celebration victory passes in 2003, but it wasn’t just the youngsters who were delighted to make their first world championship rides. Sonny Scrivner won his first personal world championship. He has put others in the ring to win the Celebration titles, but this year was the first year he made that trip alone. Jamie “Red” Etheredge also won his first world championship. Kurt Kovalick, Dr. David Ranson, Kathryn Ramsbottom, Ashley Joseph, Erik Lackey and many others enjoyed that incredible thrill you can get no other way. Bob and Mary Medina have won many world championships, but 2003 was their first world grand championship with Barracuda.

NINE - So there were many, many reasons to celebrate at this year’s show. Perhaps one of the most important is the positive working relationship that continues between the industry, the NHSC and the USDA.

Getting so many horses to the showring in a timely fashion is not an easy job. The United States Department of Agriculture and National Horse Show Commission handle all inspections at the Celebration.

"The working relationship between the Celebration, the USDA, the DQPs and the horsemen has been terrific this year," related Marsh. "Healthy, well-kept horses are being presented to an inspection team that is providing objective inspections across the board. This type of working environment is what we strive to achieve every year."

Nine reasons to celebrate, or was it 99? One of the touching moments on Saturday night was when Hackney Pony World Grand Champion Heartland Equality made his final showring appearance in the Celebration oval. After being honored in every way possible and recognized as “the greatest hackney pony to ever live,” Heartland Equality’s owners chose to retire him in front of the greatest horse show audience in America.

The Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration is a success because it is a partnership. A partnership between those people in the stands, the outstanding staff that runs the Celebration, the owners, exhibitors and trainers who prepare so many incredible horses, the media, civic clubs and breed organizations that support the event, and most of all the horse - the gentle, dependable show horse that is the Tennessee Walking Horse.